Marriage Records, Licenses, And Certificates: A Guide To Using Them When Tracking Down Family


Disclaimer: The below is intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice.

Access to marriage records, licenses, and certificates can be instrumental in finding loved ones or building your family tree. Whether you’re looking to locate a distant relative or trying to shed light on your family’s history, finding these documents can provide insight into, and evidence of, an individual’s identity. Data provided by these documents, such as first and last names, maiden names, birthdays, ages, addresses, and even blood tests, can become additional stepping stones toward completing your family tree or finally meeting a long-lost loved one.

The Differences between Marriage Licenses, Marriage Certificates, and Marriage Records, and How to Find Them

The terms "license," "certificate," and "record" are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t share the selfsame meaning. Here are some ways to understand the differences between these terms.

Marriage License: A marriage license is the documentation you need prior to the ceremony. It does not mean that you and your significant other are effectively married once this form is completed — it merely means that you have the intention to tie the proverbial knot in the near future. Consider it akin to an "application" for marriage: it can be approved or denied, based on a couple’s circumstances and where they live.

The marriage license is intended to be signed by both parties and submitted by the ceremony’s officiant to the applicable county. At this point, a marriage license is entered into public records. Once it is signed by the officiant on the day of the ceremony, the commitment is finalized. However, it does not prove that two people are married.

Marriage certificate: The marriage certificate differs from the marriage license in that it is considered to be a complete legal document that proves that you and your significant other are effectively married. It is a binding contract recognized by the government.

Marriage records: Marriage records are the combined information and documents available through both the government and some religious institutions. You can search for them by going through house of worship records and city and county civil registrations, but there are a variety of other places you can look, such as scrapbooks, almanacs, keepsakes and faith-based items belonging to family, which may reveal the time and place of a marriage, for example. Asking relatives for information and getting their personal histories can also be a fruitful tactic when searching for more data about marriages in your family. Using newspapers when looking for marriage records can also be worthwhile, as birth and marriage announcements and obituaries can serve to confirm wedding dates and maiden names.

Using Marriage Records Data In Your Search

Marriage records often provide substantial data concerning the individuals being wed. Even basic information can be helpful if you’re searching for a particular relative. Besides the location and time of the wedding, the names (including maiden names), birthplaces, birthdates, ages at the time of marriage, and genders of the individuals are often listed. In a handful of states, blood tests are also required for couples planning to marry. Marriage licenses also include associated filing numbers that may be searched. Signatures appearing in marriage records can be compared to or matched with any one that you may already have on file.

Information about people other than the individuals who are getting hitched may also be available. The names of the ceremony officiant and witnesses may also be listed in marriage records.

Analyzing the details of these documents, whether they are handwritten or digitized, can help you in your hunt for that long-lost or distant relative — and may even permit you to discover family members you never knew you had. Here are several ways how:

  • A bride’s maiden name is often included on documents pertaining to marriage, and this can help you piece together your family tree.
  • Records, whether available through the government or a religious institution, may reveal information about previous marriages. In such a situation, they can help determine which children belong to which parent in the case of multiple marriages.
  • Addresses, birth dates and places, and other data listed can help narrow your search when using an online people finder service. Addresses are particularly useful when researching deeds or city directories.
  • Newspapers can bolster your search for marriage records, but the reverse is also true (when turning to periodicals to cross-reference what you learned). When you have data from licenses, certificates, and other documentation, you can look for associated engagement and marriage announcements in local publications. Often, these articles will have additional personal details about the couple, which can help refine your search for a distant relative.

Potential Obstacles When Searching For Marriage Records

Anyone searching for marriage records can encounter obstacles, depending on location and year the marriage in question took place. In some states, like New York, these documents are not necessarily available to the general public. However, if they are 50 years or older and both members of the couple are deceased, the record is considered to be a genealogical one and is available to the public. If you are a party to a marriage, or have a legal reason for obtaining the record, you may request to be granted access to it.

Some records that were originally handwritten may present issues that can greatly impede your search for a relative. It’s possible for these documents to be inaccurate due to spelling errors, misinterpretations, or factual errors. If the marriage records were scanned, there’s a possibility for character recognition errors. Finally, records created in the late 1800’s may not contain as much information as desired.

Obtaining marriage records, licenses, and certificates can be a tricky business depending on the circumstances surrounding the marriage you are looking to know more about, but if you are granted access to such materials, they can provide a wealth of information that may simplify the search for a relative.

What will you find out?